Ryan Miller returns, Sabres clinch playoff spot

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It was a huge night in Buffalo as superstar netminder Ryan Miller returned to the crease to help the Sabres earn an exciting 4-3 overtime win and a coveted playoff berth. Fans walking into the HSBC Arena may have hoped for the playoffs—but seeing Miller come onto the ice to start the 3rd period surprised just about everyone. There’s no word whether Jhonas Enroth was pulled because he suffered an injury in the 2nd period or if it was because he gave up two goals in 39 seconds during the middle frame. Whatever the reason, Miller returned to the ice, the Sabres are in the playoffs, the Flyers have lost five straight, and all is right in Buffalo.

Things didn’t start out so great for the Sabres. They fell behind the Flyers 3-2 going into the final frame—but the 3rd period provided some of the most exciting 22 minutes fans in Buffalo have seen all year. They scored the game-tying goal halfway through the 3rd period, and then watched Thomas Vanek split the Philadelphia defense for the game-winning breakaway goal. Anytime the night ends with the announcement, “Playoff tickets go on sale Monday,” it was a successful evening.

The return for Ryan Miller marked his first ice-time since a right collarbone injury forced him to miss four games. Even though Jhonas Enroth had an impressive stint in his place, there’s no doubt the Sabres are excited to have Miller back in his familiar place. This season, Miller has a .915 save percentage and 2.60 goals against en route to his 33-22-8 record. The worst part for the Sabres is that Miller was playing his best hockey of the year in the weeks preceding his injury.

Tonight was a reminder of exactly where Miller stands as the playoffs approach. He made 8 saves in the 3rd period and never faced a shot in overtime as he earned the 21 minute victory. However, he was beaten by the first shot he faced that went off the side of the net and showed a little bit of rust that would be expected after missing a handful of games. If nothing else, that should explain just how good Miller can be for the Sabres. He looked rusty and didn’t play to the best of his ability, yet still was able to shut the Flyers down and help his team to victory.

Assuming Enroth was pulled due to a bruised ego, Lindy Ruff and the Sabres will have a decision to make going into their final game of the regular season Saturday night in Columbus. Now that they have secured a playoff spot, they can give him 4-5 days rest before the beginning of the playoffs. Alternatively, they can give him 60 minutes of pressure-free NHL action to get his timing back before the games really start to matter.

Either way, it’s a good decision for team to have to make.

Burns and Thornton pose nude for ESPN Body Issue, and yes, it’s weird

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Hey, have you ever wanted to see Brent Burns and Joe Thornton essentially line up against each other naked?

Well, ESPN the Magazine interrupted your answer either way, going ahead and doing it for their vaunted Body Issue.

Considering Thornton’s UFA status, there’s at least an outside chance that this will be their final action together as members of the San Jose Sharks.

This is your last chance not to scroll and see Thornton, Burns, beards, tattoos, and not a whole lot else.

/waits

Former teammate Jason Demers captured it on Twitter, making it his background, and generally winning the Internet for the day:

Did anyone else think about Thornton’s line after Tomas Hertl scored four goals? No? OK.

The real highlight might be Burns and Thornton giggling in robes, honestly.

Click here for more on that issue, including information on U.S. women’s ice hockey team members who will also be featured.

Hjalmarsson shocked by Blackhawks trade, but Coyotes could improve soon

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Who could blame Niklas Hjalmarsson for being surprised that the Chicago Blackhawks traded him? The move blindsided … well, just about everyone outside of the Blackhawks organization, after all.

“It’s going to take some time to get used to that thought,” Hjalmarsson said, according to the Arizona Republic. “At the same time, I’m trying to always be a positive guy.”

Indeed, the 30-year-old defenseman did his best to say all the right things about the Arizona Coyotes, praising a roster that includes “a lot of young and promising players.”

MORE on the trade here

Described by some as the NHL’s best pure defensive defenseman, Hjalmarsson also gives the Coyotes good reason to be excited by a blueline that’s suddenly quite competitive. Consider the quartet that GM John Chayka helped assemble:

Hjalmarsson: An often-underrated part of the Blackhawks’ run. Consider some of the praise he received even before this move was made.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson: One of the league’s best-kept secrets, “OEL” ranks as one of the most dangerous scoring defensemen. At 25, he’s still deep in his prime.

Alex Goligoski: When you consider the Dallas Stars’ lost 2016-17 season, don’t dismiss the absence of “Gogo.” He might not be perfect, but the 31-year-old is the sort of puck-mover you need to excel in the modern game.

Jakob Chychrun: At 19, he’s already getting reps at the NHL level. The Coyotes could pair him with a veteran and watch him grow.

***

When you look at those four, in particular, it’s easier to see Hjalmarsson’s excitement as more than just lip service. It probably doesn’t hurt that the Coyotes also added Derek Stepan, another sign that this franchise is taking the next step after absorbing other franchises’ problem contracts in the likes of Dave Bolland and Pavel Datsyuk’s last year.

Granted, it will still be an adjustment, as the Coyotes are likely aiming for “respectable” while anything less that a deep run was unacceptable for the Blackhawks.

Still, Hjalmarsson has plenty of power to make this move more palatable than it may have initially seemed.

And, hey, who would blame him for circling Oct. 21 on his calendar?

Report: Coyotes to talk to Todd Nelson about coaching vacancy

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The Arizona Coyotes had a somewhat unexpected shakeup this past week when the team and long-time head coach Dave Tippett mutually agreed to part ways after nine seasons together.

The search for a replacement began immediately and according to Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal the Coyotes will be speaking to former Oilers coach Todd Nelson about the vacancy.

Nelson spent 51 games behind the Oilers bench during the 2014-15 season replacing Dallas Eakins. Nelson was replaced at the conclusion of that season by former San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan. While his NHL head coaching experience is limited to that brief time in Edmonton, he has an extensive track record in the American Hockey League with the Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton’s top farm team) and currently the Grand Rapids Griffins (the Detroit Red Wings’ top farm team).

He has spent the past two seasons in Grand Rapids — replacing Jeff Blashill after he was promoted to the Detroit job — and has had a ton of success, leading the team to the Calder Cup this past season.

Predators won’t trade defense for forward help

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After losing James Neal to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft this past week the Nashville Predators have a pretty glaring hole in their top-six that is going to need to be addressed. Along with that, captain Mike Fisher is an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and is also considering retirement.

Because of those two developments general manager David Poile has made adding a top-six forward a priority for this summer, and he certainly has the salary cap space to get something done.

One thing he is not going to do, however, is trade one of his defensemen to find that help up front.

“We’ve traded enough defensemen in my recent history,” Poile said on Saturday, via the Tennessean. “I think everybody would be pretty much on the same page that our defense drives our team and our corps is as good as any in the league. We will not be touching our defense in the near future here.”

Over the past two years Poile has traded Shea Weber and Seth Jones off of his blue line but has still managed to assemble the NHL’s best defense. The quartet of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm is so good that Poile made sure to protect all four of them in the expansion draft and leave Neal — a consistent 25-to 30-goal scorer signed for one more year on a pretty good contract — exposed for Vegas to take.

Without dealing one of their top-four defensemen it might be difficult to find an impact winger via the trade route, which might force them to turn to the free agent market.

But even that is going to be difficult because it is such a limited market. Now that T.J. Oshie has re-signed with the Washington Capitals Alexander Radulov would probably be the top winger available, but given his history with Nashville there is virtually no chance of that reunion happening. Justin Williams would be an intriguing veteran option, while Joe Thornton could help fill the void at center if Fisher does not return.

Still, not trading from the defense is the absolute right path for Poile and the Predators to take. Not only is that group the backbone of the Predators’ organization and one of the driving forces behind its success, it is also an extremely young group that is all signed long-term on cap friendly deals.

Even with the loss of Neal Nashville still has a deep group of forwards, while youngsters Pontus Aberg and Kevin Fiala could get an increased role and an opportunity to shine.